Finally. After weeks of research and prevaricating, I finally bought my first smartphone yesterday. And what a thing of beauty it is. It may “only” be a 9000 edition BlackBerry Bold, but despite its being second-hand, it’s just four months old, has not a single scratch on it and gleams like a lovely new toy.
In the course of finding this beaut, I became a minor expert in navigating the sometimes tricky waters of buying a smartphone in Korea. Because of this, I thought it might make sense to write down what I found out and share it with any confused, smartphone-seeking expats who might stray onto this site.
First off, I wanted to buy a phone outright because I didn’t want to be tied down to the standard two-year deal that comes with smartphones. I should add that while the situation can still be somewhat unclear – with precise answers, as is often the case in Korea, changing depending on whom you ask – KT and SKT recently said they have implemented policies to make it easier for foreigners to buy phones (including smartphones). Nonetheless, when I asked about the Galaxy S at the SKT store in Myeongdong, I was told that it wasn’t possible for a foreigner to do it in his/her name.
My next wheeze was to buy a new phone outright at the SKT store. The assistant there said that would be no problem, but quoted me 800,000 won for a BlackBerry (I forget which model). This seemed like an awful lot, so I asked her if it’d be possible to buy a phone overseas (via Amazon or something) and hook it up here. She said yes, so I checked on Amazon and, lo and behold, I saw the same or a similar model for just $270. Problem solved!
Or not. Through a forum on the Linked Seoul site, I found out that any smartphones bought outside of Korea have to receive certification that takes up to a month to process and costs between 300,000 and 500,000 won! This would still have worked out cheaper than buying a new handset here, but I was damned if I was going to line the pockets of quangos/phone carriers/whoever for this particular “service” (if you read Korean, check out the irate comments on that page).
All of which brought me to the second-hand market. I hadn’t really known there was much demand for this kind of thing in Korea, but, fortunately, there is. Thanks to a tip from someone at work, I searched this site for a couple of weeks before finding my perfect match. I had also tried Craigslist, and I actually came pretty close to buying a BB through someone I met there, but in the end I think I definitely made the right choice. Like I said, this phone is just four months old, came with the full box of stuff, and basically looks brand new.
Of course, you have to have a bit of Korean in order to use that site (although, unlike many Korean sites, you can register on it using a foreigner’s ID number), but it offers way more choice than Craigslist, with new offers being posted constantly throughout the day. The going rate for a Bold 9000 seems to be between 300,000 and 400,000 won, with iPhones generally starting at 400,000 (even for 3G 8GB models, hence my decision not to buy one).
As for the risk of scams, etc, I think that kind of behaviour is largely discouraged by the need for people advertising on the site to register with their ID numbers. There is also a link to a site called The Cheat, which encourages users to red flag serial scammers. Like everything else, I imagine, provided you take precautions (never wire or transfer money in advance, remember that if it seems too good/cheap to be true, it probably is), you should be OK. Just make sure you have the help of someone who can handle the language side of things, and there are some good deals to be had…